The Behavior Savior
By Jordan Yassine, columnist
One of the most generous features of society is government assistance. Government assistance programs are designed to help those in need. Assistance can take many forms including payments, food stamps, and tax breaks. There are many reasons why someone can get assistance from the government. Pregnancy, low-income, and disability are some of them. By helping those in need, assistance programs aim to give people a “fair shot” in society.
Unfortunately, assistance programs may be ruining some lives. For example, a single mother of four gets a government payment each month. She works a minimum-wage job and is barely making ends meet. The mother uses the money to buy food for her children and pay rent. Most readers would say this mother is deserving of the assistance that she gets. However, she only buys junk food, and hasn’t cleaned her apartment for the past six months. Her relatives claim that it smells like urine.
There are plenty of single mothers that would give up the world for their children. However, this mother’s habits are harming her kids. And so, my point is this: The life of one person in our society can look very different from another. This should be common knowledge to all of us. So the question we need to ask is, “Can government assistance reward harmful lifestyles?”
There’s a phenomenon in behavioral science that we’ll call, “coincidental reward.” Coincidental reward happens when we coincidentally reward behaviors that weren’t planned for. Here’s a simple example. A child does his homework while whining about it. After finishing his homework, he’s rewarded with time on the computer. Since whining also happened, it ‘coincidentally’ gets rewarded too. So we may see more whining the next time he does his homework. The Journal of Experimental Analysis of Behavior has published a number of research articles on coincidental reward (called adventitious reinforcement). It’s a very real phenomenon.
Government assistance can work the same way, but on a much larger scale. By giving payments to families the government is ‘coincidentally’ rewarding a whole lifestyle of behaviors. In many cases they’re the right behaviors. But in some cases they’re not. Which is why our government needs to do a better job screening families. Being in need shouldn’t be the only reason that makes a family eligible for assistance. Entire lifestyles should be looked at too. Our government has to make sure it isn’t rewarding harmful behaviors. If harmful behaviors are found, help should be given to fix them. Since the aim of government assistance is to give people a “fair shot”, we need to make sure it does exactly that. Otherwise, rewarding harmful behaviors is anything but fair. Hopefully we can start the dialogue on how to address this imbalance in our society.